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Aging Well : Who Says California Cabernets Don't Stand the Test of Time as Well as Their French Counterparts?


Judging the merits of California Cabernets may well be a venture into the rough seas of personal prejudice. A veritable uproar was triggered by one of the panelists of the California Wine Experience last October in San Francisco. Wine collector John Hart of Chicago flatly proclaimed that California Cabernets do not age as well as Bordeaux reds. Subsequently, publisher Marvin Shanken devoted the Nov. 16-30 issue of his journal, The Wine Spectator, to the question with a front page cartoon titled: "Do They Age? Why Experts Can't Agree On California." Only wine writer Terry Robards wrote to the subject with basic reason and proper focus: "The real issue is not how well California wines age but how good they are."

A poorly made wine will never attain greater merit with age. On the other hand, almost any California Cabernet of finesse and balanced complexity will endure and improve on exactly the same time schedule as its Bordeaux red wine counterpart. In fact, I would say that anyone who denies the aging ability of fine California Cabernet Sauvignon is either prejudiced, inexperienced or both.

In support of this strong point of view, I can happily offer the results of a tasting of 25 1974 Cabernet Sauvignons given only weeks ago by wine writer Jerry Walker in Torrance. The tasters included wine-trade professionals, friends of the host, this writer and some of my students. To give you an idea of the quality of the wines, here is a partial list of the bottles offered: Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve, Burgess Cellars, Caymus, Chateau Ste. Michelle (Washington State), Chappellet, Clos du Val, Diamond Creek, Dry Creek, Fetzer, Robert Mondavi (regular), Raymond, Simi, Souverain, Sterling, Trefethen and the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet served by President Reagan at the summit meeting in Geneva.

All wines were judged on the UC Davis 20-point scale. The big winner was Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington State, with an average evaluation of 19/20. I rated it 19.5. (I gave my only 20/20 to David Stare's Dry Creek Sonoma County wine, which Walker had purchased for $5.95; it's price today is about $40.)

The following list of fine cabernets contains a range of styles and prices, but you can be assured that each wine will age elegantly:

Alexander Valley Vineyards 1983 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.50). Tenth Anniversary Selection: Needs aging.

Buena Vista 1982 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- Carneros ($11). Fine drinkability.

Belvedere 1982 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- Robert Young Vineyard ($12). Fabulously rich.

Sebastiani 1981 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- Proprietors Res. ($10). Intriguing woodsy bouquet.

Geyser Peak 1982 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($10). Lovely soft, aromatic wine.

Simi 1979 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- Reserve ($9). Complex and delightful wine.

Joseph Phelps 1981 Insignia (60% Cabernet/28% Merlot/12% Cabernet franc) ($30) Majestic collector's pride.

Freemark Abbey 1981 Cabernet Bosche--Napa Valley ($14). Luscious, mouth-filling.

Beringer 1981 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- Reserve ($20). Chocolate-rich. Enjoy now or later.

Sterling Vineyards 1980 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- Reserve ($27). Aristocratic claret, stylish.

Robert Mondavi 1982 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($13). Ever-dependable excellence.

Smith & Hook 1981 Monterey Cabernet Sauvignon ($13). Full-bodied, California character.

Jekel Vineyard 1981 Monterey Cabernet Sauvignon ($10). Distinguished classical elegance.

Creston Manor 1982 Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($12). Charming drinkability right now.

Fisher Vineyards 1982 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($12). Luscious wine, wow bouquet.

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